Digital access to historic Aotearoa arts journal

One of the country’s earliest arts journals, Art in New Zealand, will be digitised and made freely available to search on Papers Past. The seventy issues of Art in New Zealand (1928–1946) and its successor the Year Book (1945-1951) are treasure for Aotearoa art history researchers and enthusiasts.

Image: Cover of Art in New Zealand, December 1942. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections.

Established by publisher Harry Tombs, Art in New Zealand aimed to improve standards of art criticism, generate discussion and improve on the art notices in local newspapers that were “more kindly than constructively critical. They spread praise lavishly, and dispraise is a rarety... such notices impart no stimulus to an art that needs stimulating... They may merely narcoticise the artist into the belief that he has ‘arrived,’ or at least is ‘arriving’.”

The editors also wanted to provide a forum that would help nurture art unique to New Zealand. “Glancing round annual exhibitions in the Dominion frequently gives one the impression that there is no human activity going on here; so many of the pictures are just “pretty bits” of scenery fashioned on familiar English patterns,” J. Shelley wrote (December 1938). “[Where] in the painters’ records of life are the farms, the freezing works, the woolsheds, the dairies, that make up so much of this New Zealand of ours… not to mention the racecourses or the haunts of the all-blacks?” Shelley then commended Russell Clark’s work – “one of the few courageous spirits who are artistically alive to all this.”

Image: Page from Art in New Zealand, December 1938. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections.

Artist Louise Henderson also addressed this concern: “As embroidery is the art of the people, by which is expressed some idea, why not use what is here under your hand? People in New Zealand should think of their flora, their bush plants, mosses, and the many other things which are connected with the land they live in and love. They may look at the beautiful Maori patterns, and find inspiration in their design… Through this, one may attain a national art.” (September 1941).

Art in New Zealand cost five shillings, and copies were posted in a “strong envelope with stiff back, to enable subscribers to receive them flat and undamaged.” Wellington artists predominated in the first issue, and other centres followed in their turn. The 6th issue, in December 1929, focused on Māori arts and crafts. It was printed three weeks early in order to catch the overseas mail. “If we say that it is an uncommonly different Christmas memento to send abroad, it is because we honestly think it so,” wrote the editors. The many illustrations included images of weaving, capes and cloaks, taniko, and musical instruments. H. Hamilton from the Maori Arts and Crafts School in Rotorua wrote about “The Maori as an Artist,” and Johannes C. Anderson about “Maori Musical Instruments.”

Image: Page from Art in New Zealand, December 1929. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections.

The first essay devoted to a woman artist – Rhona Haszard – was published in the 17th issue (September 1932). This was written by her partner Leslie Greener after Haszard died in Egypt the previous year, aged 30. She had received recognition in Britain and France. “And in truth,” Greener wrote, “she had only begun.”

Art in New Zealand also included craft, dance, plays and music, and published poetry and fiction. It ran an annual short story competition - won by Robin Hyde in 1934. Hyde was a regular contributor to the journal. In one of her articles, “Poetry in Auckland,” she said the growth of poetry there fought against stony ground. Newspapers published poems, “But while the corset factories supply the dailies with all the sex appeal of twill breasts and rubber buttocks, bestriding whole pages, poetry appears hunched up in a corner, mean, shabby, dark, and generally misprinted.” In 1940 her poem “To-Night” appeared in Art in New Zealand, after reaching the journal just before her death.

Image: Pages from Art in New Zealand, March 1938. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections.

The publishers were keen to continue Art in New Zealand during the Depression, and almost halved the price. They also continued throughout World War II, whereas the comparable Art in Australia closed for the duration of the war. The journal had to be published in newsprint due to paper shortages, and it could no longer provide colour reproductions so it introduced more drawings, engravings and lithographs. Art in New Zealand remained a quarterly until 1944 when it became a biannual, changed its size, and was renamed The Arts in New Zealand. Due to an ongoing lack of profit, January/February 1946 was the last issue in this new format.

However, encouraged by the good results achieved with the initial Year book of the arts in New Zealand 1945 the publisher decided to continue with that model. “Whereas less than 400 people subscribe to [Art in New Zealand], an edition of 650 copies of the Arts Year Book was sold out in 10 days, and a further 400 hundred have been reprinted.” He added that “It disturbs us a little that in one of the chief arts schools of the Dominion, only one person buys Arts. The others borrow it and criticise. The University takes little interest.”

Image: Cover of the Arts Year Book, 1950. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections.

In his introduction to the Arts Year Book 1946, editor E.H. McCormick said “remembering that this Year Book was founded on the grave of an older enterprise, we also realise that the way of the arts in this country is unrewarded and strewn with difficulties… There are grounds for mild assurance but not for extremes of confidence.” They printed 1500 copies.

In 1950, the State Literary Fund granted the sixth year book 250 pounds. Fifty of the 170 pages in this edition were reproductions of the work of painters and engravers. The editorial stated the “transfusion of funds has supplied the strength to carry the publication a firm step along the direction in which we believe it must develop if it is to be of the greatest service to the arts of this country.” This was to be the last edition. It was 16 years until there was another Aotearoa arts periodical: Ascent, published by Caxton Press in 1967.

Image: The cover of the first issue of Art in New Zealand, Seotember 1928.
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections.

The Angela Morton Room Te Pātaka Toi Art Library at Takapuna Library donated full sets of these journals to the National Library, who aim to have them available to view on Papers Past between November 2022-May 2023.

Author: Leanne
Angela Morton Room Te Pātaka Toi Art Library


Letters and Art in New Zealand, E.H. McCormick (Department of Internal Affairs, 1940).

A journal of their own: an index to Art in New Zealand, compiled and edited by Richard Dingwall, Rosemary Entwisle and Lois Robertson (Bulletin of New Zealand Art History, Special Series no 2, 1997). 

Papers Past